As the final seconds of the Big West Conference women’s basketball tournament ticked down at the Honda Center on Saturday, March 10, the impact of what Cal State University Northridge (CSUN) was about to accomplish could be felt from the Valley to Northern California.
The Matadors, the fifth seed, were playing their fourth game in five days. No Big West team had ever won the tournament championship by winning four games. They were facing UC Davis, the tournament’s top seed and back-to-back regular season conference champion. The Aggies bolted to an early 10-point lead and were still ahead 29-24 at halftime, leading to this daunting fact: UC Davis was 21-0 this season when leading at the half.
But the Matadors (19-15) flipped the script on both accounts, pulling out a 63-55 victory over UC Davis (25-6) for their third Big West title in five years and the automatic bid to the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Tournament that goes with it: a 16th seed and ticket to Indiana to face Notre Dame (29-3) — the top seed in the Spokane regional — in first round action on Friday, March 16, at 2 p.m. and televised on ESPN.
The game will be a chance for the rest of the nation to see a local, emerging star.
Channon Fluker gives the Matadors a fighting chance against the Fighting Irish. The soft-spoken 6-4 center, a junior averaging 18.8 points and 12.1 rebounds, won her second straight conference Player of the Year honor this season. She recorded 24 points and 17 boards in the clincher against the Aggies. She is one of 11 active NCAA Division I players with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career.
The most impressive thing is the game is still relatively new for the 21-year-old Pasadena native. Fluker didn’t start playing organized basketball until her first year in high school even though, by her recollection, “I was often the tallest girl in my class.” She was happy being a cheerleader until her older brother Collin encouraged her toward the game. And while her skills were very raw, people were noticing her innate ability to rebound missed shots.
“Other [people] told me to keep playing, that it could lead to good things,” said Fluker, speaking by phone on Monday while waiting to see the NCAA seeding broadcast on Monday, March 12.
By her senior year a few colleges showed interest, but none more than CSUN. Fluker, who said she underwent the recruiting process “on my own,” liked what the coaches had to say and the fact that Northridge was close to home.
Head Coach Jason Flowers marvels at how far Fluker has come as a player, and how much further she could go.
“She never played club basketball, and her high school (Maranatha in Pasadena) was in a league not as prestigious as others. So she flew under the radar to an extent,” Flowers said. “But her level of work capacity has gone up since she’s been here. In high school…she was just bigger than the others. But here she has dedicated herself to getting better and to working hard.
“There is still a lot of room for growth in her game. A lot [about basketball] is still new to her. Her learning curve can still be steep. It could take another level of commitment to [become elite], but I believe you will still see more growth by next year.”
Fluker says Flowers has been “a huge influence on me as a person and player. He does push me; he does not let me be any less than what I can be. He’s pushed me to work harder and not get satisfied with where I am. There’s so much more I can keep doing.”
There’s so much she’s already done.
Fluker is the fifth player in conference history to repeat as Big West Player of the Year, and the first since Brittany Crain of UC Riverside in 2015 and 2016. She was also named Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and first team All-Conference, becoming only the second CSUN player after Ashley Guay, who’s now an assistant coach here) to be named Big West Conference Player of the Year and is the third Matador in the last five seasons to be named Big West Defensive Player of the Year.
While blossoming into a force on the court, Fluker remains unassuming off of it and eager to learn. This past summer she was invited to the USA under-23 national team training camp — the only mid-major college player invited — getting a chance to see and compete against some of the best players in the country.
“It opened my eyes,” Fluker said. “I started playing later than a lot of the girls. I learned there was more development to be done. I was a bit out of place, but I could keep up with them. And I know things can be better.”
Flowers said Fluker could get a chance to play professionally if she continues to pursue excellence and dedicates herself to reaching her full potential.
“If being a pro is what she decides to do…she can play in Europe and has the potential to be in WNBA. She has the ability,” the coach said. “But that is the ‘one percent’ of the top one percent. And it is more about your mental approach. If she gets that mentality, she has as good a chance as anybody who has played here.”
That’s down the road. More immediate is the imposing challenge of playing Notre Dame in its house, aka Purcell Pavilion. The Fighting Irish, who won a fifth straight regular season ACC title, but lost to Louisville in the conference tournament final in Greensboro, NC on March 4. (Its other defeats were road losses to Connecticut on Dec. 3 and Louisville on Jan. 11.) They are 30-6 all-time as a regional top seed. They are also 18-2 in NCAA Tournament games on their home court, including the last 12 in a row. And, as if they needed any more help, there’s the karma of St. Patrick’s Day this weekend.
Fluker doesn’t have to conquer Notre Dame by herself. Big West Tournament MVP Tessa Boagni, a 6-2 senior forward who scored 23 points in the final against UC Davis, averages 13.6 points and can fill up the stat sheet. Senior guard Serafina Maulupe is another double-digit scorer, averaging 11.7 points.
Just as important, the Matadors — who began the season 0-5 but have gone 19-10 since — can play relaxed because they, as a heavy underdog, have nothing to lose.
But if CSUN does win the game, don’t call it fluke — but rather a Fluker.